Saturday, 28 April 2018

Inequality and democracy: Can they coexist?

Equality and democracy are closely related. If one declines, what happens to the other? Thoughts on inequality, democracy, refugees, complexity, and collapse. And droning monks

The Western world has an equality problem.

Inequality is of course not the same as poverty. But it does make everyone poorer. On paper, it need not; if the rich take an increasing proportion of a country’s wealth, is that a problem, if everyone is getting richer overall? I am going to argue that that won’t happen, because those at the bottom of the heap can only increase their standard of living in a true democracy, and inequality is a threat to democracy. So inequality will set up a vicious spiral in which it increases, and democracy decreases.

The 1930s Slump. A march in Toronto
Inequality has been increasing. Few people have explained this process so well as Robert Reich, author of the 2010 book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future.

Reich was Labor Secretary in Bill Clinton’s first administration and is now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. His diagnosis, as set out in Aftershock, is simple; it is that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few will make everyone poorer, because the rich don’t spend anything like enough to generate employment – that needs a mass market, in which wealth is distributed through the workforce so that everyone can participate in the consumer economy. However, a process of wealth concentration has been going on for years. “The wages of the typical American hardly increased in the three decades leading up to the Crash of 2008, considering inflation. In the 2000s, they actually dropped,” says Reich, and goes on to explain that the economy has grown so much over that period that, had the benefits been divided equally, the typical person would be 60% better off.

If that’s the case, how come that, for 30 years, no-one seemed to notice this upward redistribution was happening? Reich argues that the relative decline in income for most people was masked by longer hours, which meant their overall income did not always decline – so that although their income per hour did, they didn’t always notice. He also notes the participation of women as well as men in the workforce, generating dual incomes so that people did not, subjectively, feel poorer (he does not use this as an argument that women should not be in the workforce). And, most dangerously, the decline in real incomes has been compensated for by an explosion of credit. A quick look at house prices over the last 30 years suggests where much of that credit went. When the property bubble burst, the game, indeed, stopped.

Britain is scarcely better in terms of income distribution. Inequality is often measured using the Gini coefficient, which measures variation through frequency distribution. The coefficient is expressed as a value between zero and one, where zero represents perfect equality and one represents the concentration of all wealth in one individual. According to the OECD, individual countries’ Gini coefficients range from roughly 0.24 to 0.7. That of the US in 2013 was 0.396 and Britain’s was not much better, at 0.358. These figures are high for developed countries; for comparison, France’s and Germany’s were 0.294 and 0.292 respectively. This suggests that if Reich is right and the US has a problem with income inequality, then Britain has one too.

The numbers seem to bear this out; according to the Equality Trust, households in the bottom 10% of the British population have an average net income of £9,277 while the top 10% have net incomes over nine times that (£83,897). The poorest 50% of all households own just 8.7% of the wealth; the richest 10% of households hold 45%. True, the Trust has an angle; its mission is to encourage greater equality. However, the figures have been drawn from Britain’s Office of National Statistics. The Trust adds that poorer children can expect 52 years of healthy life against richer ones’ 71. One could add that even the lower figure is far better than in lower-income countries. Nonetheless, the evidence of inequality in Britain is striking.

Inequality is not good for democracy. Reich warns that, if we’re unlucky, Americans will at last say “Hell, we were screwed”, but then draw quite the wrong conclusion from that, electing a right-wing, isolationist, populist and frightening President. He is wise enough to make this a fictional character (though she slightly resembles a sort of Palin-Thatcher cross.) It is an intriguing premise, given that Aftershock was written many months before the Trump campaign began to gain traction. It is not surprising.  Losers of rigged games, as Reich rightly says, tend to get angry. An alternative scenario that Reich does not consider is that Americans, and Brits, will vote for governments who see the need for greater equality, but that those governments will be hamstrung by markets, trade treaties and, in the US, legislative stasis. In that case people will, quietly first and then in greater numbers, drift away from the system, and society will lose its cohesion; government will become ineffective; and the Western world will decay into irrelevance.

A historical relationship
But the link between equality and democracy is not a new one. Without the former, the latter could not have taken root.

A functioning democracy requires a measure of equality – yet a certain equality is needed to attain democracy. The Industrial Revolution was, in effect, a breaking of that vicious circle. Between 1700 and 1900, Britain broke the cycle of poor nutrition, low output, low income, low consumption and poor nutrition. J.D. Chambers, in his elegant 1972 summary Population, Economy And Society In Pre-Industrial England, credits a fortuitous break in cycles of disease, but also says: “One aspect of the Industrial Revolution… is that the labour force was not only very much larger but that it was worked very much harder.” This needed better nutrition. In a 1990 paper, the future Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel pointed to “the exceeding[ly] low level of work capacity permitted by the [18th century] food supply… The increase in the amount of calories available for work over the past 200 years… increased the labour-force participation rate by bringing [in] the bottom 20% of the consuming units… [who had had] only enough energy… for a few hours of strolling each day – about the amount needed for a career in begging.” (The Conquest of High Mortality and Hunger in Europe and America: Timing and Mechanisms, 1990.) He concluded that improvements in nutrition and health had accounted for perhaps 30% of the growth in per capita income in Europe between 1790 and 1980.

So the vicious circle had been broken. But those who controlled food and wages did not permit this out of altruism, or because they had read Fogel. Chambers cites the way in which 18th-century labour combined to obtain better wages. Or as the filmmaker Michael Moore put it in his 1996 polemic, Downsize This!, “When the early unionists stood up to the companies, it resulted in a higher standard of living for all of us… Thanks to labor unions, we have… wages that allow even the most unskilled worker to purchase many products – which, in turn, gives more people jobs.” This process of collective bargaining could not have happened under an all-powerful oligarchy. In effect, one type of human right secured another. In 19th-century Britain, freedom – albeit imperfect, the beginnings of liberal democracy – became more than its own reward.

Free debate was central to this process. Brian Inglis’s absorbing account of the social reforms of the 19th century, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution (1971), describes how in 1832 MP Michael Sadler fielded a Bill to regulate abuse of labour in factories;  the evidence collected by the Bill’s Committee proved, as the Leicester Mercury put it, that “cruel over-working [of children] has in many places been practised… It is horrible, and an outrage on humanity, and decency…” The uproar forced the new government to pass its own 1833 Factory Act, which for the first time created an independent inspectorate.  Britain never became a workers’ paradise, but that is not the point; rather, it is that democracy and the free circulation of information allowed the vicious circle of malnutrition to be broken and real growth to begin. It is an argument also stated, in a rather different form, by Amartya Sen, chiefly in his much-read book Development as Freedom (1999). Crudely put, a democracy is a society in which people may empower themselves; to Sen, famously, famines do not happen in a democracy. The development of capitalism and democracy, and the synthesis between the two, in the 19th century seems to demonstrate the same argument.

This is of course an imperfect thesis. Technological change also fed people in the 19th century: tinned goods; the introduction of refrigeration, enabling the transport of meat from Argentina and the Commonwealth; the process of enclosures, which slung people off the land but also created cheaper food; then building of the railways deep into the Great Plains of the US, which brought cheaper grain and in so doing caused an agricultural depression in Britain but also fed people – all of this mattered, and it is dangerous to say that there would have been no rise in living standards without democracy. Yet it is hard to see how ordinary people would have claimed their share without the freedom to organize and to be represented.

Today, however, as Reich has explained, the rich have reacted, and grabbed back a bigger share of the cake.  This reaction has been happening for a while, and it has already destabilized our world.  Consider the following from Reich’s Aftershock. It is a very good summary of what happened in 2008:

As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth... Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had... drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. ...In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.

Except that it isn’t Reich himself and it isn’t about 2008. Reich is quoting long-ago Fed chairman Marriner Eccles. And Eccles was writing not about 2008 but about 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Yet this is not so different to what happened after 2008, as the British and US governments bailed out the banks that were too big to fail, and ordinary people paid for it through a regime of austerity. After 1929, and again in 2008, it wasn’t the wealthy that paid for their folly.

So why not?

Anti-austerity demonstation in Valencia (Fito Senabre/Wikimedia Commons)
Rousseau is alleged to have said in a speech, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Actually the rich are quite good at making the poor eat each other instead. One can see this in the carefully whipped-up rhetoric against “scroungers” and the “workshy”; those of limited means are encouraged to blame their troubles on those less, rather than more, fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile the rich have helped themselves to the country’s assets. Anyone who doubts that this is what has taken place in Britain should read Owen Jones’s excellent The Establishment and How they Get away With It, or James Meek’s shrewd take on privatisation, Private Island.

This is part of a process by which wealth will become more and more concentrated. At some point, the consumer economy and the mass-markets it supports will go into decline. It will not be for the first time. Some have argued that this was the fate of Mayan society; it all became too much and the great mass of people stopped supporting their priestly class, and simply dissolved back into the jungle. (The American anthropologist Joseph Tainter has seen this process slightly differently, as one of societies collapsing because they support too much complexity; more on this below.) Is that what will happen to us – that the system will simply decay, leaving our societies to decline into illiberalism and superstition; a repeat of the end of the Roman Empire? That is somewhat apocalyptic, but as the philosopher John Gray has pointed out, the idea that history is, by its nature, progressive has little to support it.

But the threat to democracy in a society doesn’t just come from the inequalities within it. It comes also from inequality between societies – global inequality.

Global inequality
There is a rising tide of xenophobia in some European societies that is at least in part the result of a broader dimension of economic inequality that is threatening European democracy – global inequality and the refugee crisis. In 2015-2016, we saw the arrival, in Europe, of large numbers of refugees and illegal economic migrants (we should be careful about this distinction; one may be a refugee from poverty). This gave rise to a liberal and decent reaction in some quarters, but has also been of use to the radical right.

As Slavoj Žižek puts it (in Against the Double Blackmail, published in 2016), after the terrorist outrages in Paris in November 2015, these liberal impulses were drowned out by the rhetoric of the war on terror. It is, he writes, “easy to imagine what will follow ...The greatest victims of the Paris attacks will be the refugees themselves, and the true winners ...will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides.” Žižek’s answer to this is a global solidarity that attacks the causes of conflict and migration – global inequalities – at their root. In fact, there is sometimes more at issue than that; the specific problems of Syria and Eritrea are not solely about north-south inequalities. In principle, however, Žižek is right. Global, as well as internal, inequalities are threats to democracy.

Moreover, the two types of inequality are related, for those who feel themselves disadvantaged will always be vulnerable to the siren call from those who would have them believe that their enemy is not the rich, but those who have nothing. In such a mood, no-one will be disposed to listen to the reasoned arguments that tell them refugees and the poorest are not the cause of their problems. We saw a process of this type in the 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain, where millions trooped to the polls to vote “Leave”, convinced that the tide of migrants from Europe was making them poorer. In fact, the evidence suggests the exact opposite. What will happen when, too late, people find that their standard of living is not rising but dropping? Again, as Reich suggests in the case of the US, they may decide that democracy is not the answer.

So what is to be done?
Robert Reich’s book is lucid and enjoyable (as is the film based on the book). But although it’s great on diagnosis, I’m not so sure he has solutions. He suggests a number of measures to address inequality. One is a “reverse income tax” that will subsidize the middle class (why does the US not appear to have a working class, one wonders?). The money would be funded by a carbon tax, and would be added to paychecks. This reminds one of the system of poor relief devised by magistrates at Speenhamland in Berkshire at the end of the 18th century. “Speenhamland” was, when I was young, always taught as an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It simply allowed employers to lower wages, thus accumulating wealth for themselves while making the public pay their wage bill. In fact, recent research has suggested that Speenhamland’s outcomes were not so clear-cut. Still, with many lower-paid workers in Western countries now drawing welfare to supplement their wages, one wonders whether we already have Speenhamland writ large. In any case, this is tinkering around the edges. Wouldn’t we be better off having a much higher, and strongly enforced, minimum wage? Far from bankrupting employers, it’ll make us all richer in the end. 

Even more important, we could address the whole question of governance. Reich does suggest measures to get money out of politics, but what he does not discuss is the weakness of electoral systems that give voters a limited choice between at most two candidates. You want to throw the bums out? Give us a system that lets us choose a better government. But in any case, suppose we did get one; it might not be able to do much about inequality, and that might make things worse. Progressive rates of taxation are one answer. In Britain, however, a modern government would find it very difficult to return to the rates of supertax that applied before 1970; neither is it entirely clear that it should, as it would be hard to collect and might not, in the end, make much difference. Other forms of taxation change are possible, with a move back towards the social-democratic model. But at the moment there seems little prospect of it.

I suspect the answer lies in some major shift in economic life. This may be something like automation, which we have seen coming, but for which we have done little to prepare. But it is not really clear what the consequences will be; many may find themselves without jobs, but they may be the people least able, as a class, to effect change. If so they will simply suffer.

But perhaps leadership is not the answer to this anyway. Joseph Tainter, mentioned briefly earlier, would not think so. Complex societies, he says, “do not evolve on the whims of individuals.”

The collapse of complexity?
Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies posits that social systems evolve by meeting challenges through the development of complex structures, both social and technical. This is not hard to believe; as the population rises, innovations such as (for example) public irrigation systems will be needed to grow their food, and roads to carry it to them. To run these systems demands complexity, with a growing number of people in roles that are removed from primary production. At some point, the marginal rate of return on this complexity will fall to a point where it can no longer justify its cost, and the complex society will collapse. Tainter presents a number of examples to support this theory; the Mayans are one, the Western Roman Empire another. The latter’s collapse, says Tainter, is seen as a lapse into darkness; actually it may have been a logical response to an overly complex system that could no longer justify its existence, and it ceasing to support it, the population made a rational economic decision.

One must not oversimplify Tainter’s argument. He does not, for example, see collapse as occurring in societies that have stronger neighbours. They will simply get taken over. Moreover he sees a society’s resources in terms of energy; if it can expand those resources, through conquest or technological change, it may be able to sustain complexity. Given that we may be on the verge of an energy revolution, this is interesting. Nonetheless Tainter’s vision is compelling; of a society splitting into multiple specialized sectors as it evolves, and acquiring more and more functions that are removed from primary production, until at some point the whole shebang simply cannot pay its way. Oddly, the group closest to this argument, for me, may be the 18th-century Physiocrats, who believed all wealth derived, in the end, from the land; they would have understood Tainter perfectly.

Tainter is not talking about inequality. He is talking of the costs of complexity. But it seems axiomatic that these would fall hardest on the poor. Tainter does comment that, as the rate of return on complexity drops, “parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. ...Various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away.” So can we apply his theory to our own situation? Is growing inequality in the UK and USA a symptom of excessive complexity? If so, Tainter may have shown us the exact mechanism through which inequality will destroy democracy and, if we are unlucky, much else besides.

Droning monks
One can even guess which area of complexity will be the first to exhaust everyone’s patience. Earlier, I quoted Mariner Eccles’s diagnosis of what happened in 1929 and suggested that 2008 had not been so very different. In these cases, the part of society that went wrong was the financial sector. This sector adds to complexity. But it is not a luxury; it grew up in order to finance productive enterprises, including infrastructure – a cursory dip into the history of the railways, shipping and other industries will confirm this. Thus, if Tainter is right, the marginal rate of return on this aspect of complexity should be adequate. But in both 1929 and 2008, it showed itself not to be, as it had acquired functions that served its own existence rather than the needs of society as a whole – for example, through the “securitization”, or packaging, and sale of mortgages that should really have remained with the original lender. 

The resulting losses fell not simply upon society as a whole but on those parts of it that could least afford it. The results, in the 1930s, were catastrophic for democracy, and 2008 seems to have had a similar (if so far milder) effect.

If my analysis is correct, then, we can both attack inequality and preserve democracy by removing layers of complexity, rather than, as in Tainter’s prognosis, collapsing or being swallowed up by neighbours. And the interesting thing is that in England, at least, we have been here before.

I have lately been ploughing through a mighty tome called The England of Elizabeth. It has 533 close-set pages (excluding index) and this was just the first volume. The book was the crowning achievement of the historian A. L. Rowse, who died in 1997 at the age of 94. It is packed with detail – too much, perhaps; yet it is a magisterial picture of a country in an age of self-discovery, facing multiple dangers from within and without, guided to safety by a monarch of extraordinary ability. I’ll be returning to this in a future post. But what is striking in this context is Rowse’s take on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place not many years before Elizabeth’s accession; looking back, we see this as a political event, but profoundly affected the economy. According to Rowse, it threw:

“one-sixth of the whole cultivable area of the country upon the market ...the settling in of numerous hard-headed, hard-fisted families to screw the utmost return out of the land in innumerable places where idle monks had droned away their lives [means] there must have been a considerable increase in productivity...”

Dissolved: Whitby Abbey (Ackers72/Wikimedia Commons)
There surely was. But more relevant here, perhaps, is the fact that the monastic structure must have made huge demands on the resources of the society that supported it. We are back with Tainter; there was a burden of complexity that could not justify itself economically. But instead of collapsing, this complex society laid a part of that burden down. To be sure, it did not do so solely for that reason. The Dissolution was a political act. Yet it both released the burden on resources, and increased them. In so doing it was part of the roots of the Industrial Revolution.

So what will our Dissolution be? And will it throw Tainter’s process into reverse, as the Dissolution appears to have done? If not, the weaknesses caused by inequality will be laid bare, and democracy will find it harder and harder to justify its existence.

But what if none of this is inevitable? Maybe Tainter has shown us how things might end, but a complex society in which everyone does have an interest in the level of complexity may prove resilient; why not? Of course, if its level of complexity continues to rise without delivering sufficient benefits, it will collapse. In this, Tainter is surely right. But if those benefits are more fairly shared, the burden of complexity will be tolerated for longer. It is this challenge that we face now. Ask someone on the conventional left, and they may argue that it can be met through progressive taxation and through State ownership of key sectors. They may be part-right. But to me, only a more fundamental reform of democracy will enable it to meet the challenge of inequality, just as it did in the 19th century.

A couple of years ago I wrote in these pages about the way the political agenda in the US and especially the UK is distorted by the electoral system, making it open to manipulation (Don't like anchovies? Don't bother voting, then, July 2016). There is no need to restate the arguments in detail here. But in a nutshell, the current systems allow vested interests to target a very small number and homogenous type of electors in order to swing the result. A few months later, the US Presidential election showed how horribly right this was. The extent to which that very small number of floating voters in swing states actually were targeted and their minds changed, by outside interests remains open to dispute. However, the implication is that the agenda can be distorted. Thus the decline in real wages for (say) socioeconomic groups C3, D1 and D2 may be the main concern for millions of people, but the election will be fought instead on some matter that only really exercises a few hundred thousand – say inheritance tax on homes worth more than £325,000, although few people outside South-East England really own them (in fact the average house price in the UK in February 2018 was £225,047). Thus the costs of maintaining a complex society are shifted onto the shoulders of those less able to bear it, and at some point, they may decide not to do so.

The danger at that point is that they will set about some droning monks. My guess is that it their victim would be the financial services industry. In a way they will be right. Many of its activities are superfluous and damaging, as we found out in both 1929 and 2008. But it provides over a million jobs and generates a trade surplus of £60 billion. And as stated earlier, it does have productive functions. What if the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater?  And what about other “non-essential” sectors – foreign aid, the arts? Would they survive?

In a sense, this has already happened. Disenfranchised in general elections, millions of people trooped into the polling booths in 2016 to vote to dismantle one aspect of complexity: Britain’s membership of the European Union, with its tangled skein of rights and obligations, its notorious (though overstated) bureaucracy – and its net benefits, which were just too hard for people to envisage. Maybe the Brexit vote was the collapse of complexity in action. And maybe the rapid reform of our democracy is the only way to halt this process, tackle inequality and prevent everyone melting, like the Maya, into the jungle. As Tainter points out, for some, to abandon the Western Roman Empire was a rational decision. But we should remember what came next – the Dark Ages.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Sunday, 22 April 2018

A Higher Loyalty

James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is the book of the year (at least, so far), and some may think they should read it and wonder whether they can be bothered. Should they?

Sacked FBI Director James Comey’s apologia A Higher Loyalty has made quite a splash, and seems to have got under the President's skin. It is very much a book of its time and place, and books that hit the headlines don’t always hang around afterwards. But this one might have a longer half-life than most. James Comey isn’t Hemingway and I guess wouldn’t claim to be, but he’s a concise, engaging writer with a story to tell. There are also some brief but sharp glimpses of people we think we know  – Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama; all of them really quite vivid. There is also plenty to hold one’s interest before one even gets to Donald Trump (who appears quite late).

But it’s Trump who is the final target of the book. And good though it is, I am intrigued as to exactly why Comey wrote it.

A Higher Loyalty isn’t really an autobiography; rather, it’s a series of morality plays structured round the events of Comey’s life. So we start by hearing of his struggles at school in New Jersey, and how he learns one must call out bullies. He talks about working in a supermarket as a teenager, and the lesson here is what he learned about leadership from his boss. He is a young lawyer in the prosecutor’s office in New York, and this lets him discuss the Mafia dons he helped put behind bars and their morality and code of conduct. He takes his first major post in government, as Deputy Attorney-General in the George W. Bush administration, and we are into the story of illegal surveillance and torture, and how he must demonstrate its illegality.  Then he is FBI Director under Obama, and gives us a glimpse of the latter and of what Comey considers leadership – courtesy, patience and empathy.  Throughout, there is a theme of public service, and of this higher loyalty – to truth, to public service, to the Constitution.

All of this is carefully preparing us for when we get to meet the Orange One, round about page 200. And every life-lesson we’ve read about in the book so far comes alive at this point, showing us exactly why Comey thinks him morally bankrupt, soulless and a danger to democracy.

A Higher Loyalty, in short, is a very neat hatchet job on Trump. But why write it? After all, if Comey’s the copper-bottomed public servant he’d have us believe, he’d take his secrets to the grave. I think there are three possible reasons for doing this. Two do not reflect that well on Comey. The third, however, does.

First, this book could be a self-justification. Comey’s conduct regarding the Clinton email affair, the way he presented the FBI’s conclusions on it in July 2016, and his decision to reopen it that October have made Comey a serious hate figure in some circles. The emphasis Comey puts on this episode supports the theory that this book is an apologia, as does his detailed description of his battles with Dick Cheney and his Chief of Staff, David Addington, over surveillance and torture. As Laurence Dodds put it in a review in the Telegraph (April 16 2018), “James Comey wants you to know that he is a good man. Or at least, that he tries. ...[He] depicts himself as an honest agent in a den of vipers.”

Not everyone is 100% convinced. Carlos Lozada’s review of the book in the Washington Post  (April 14 2018) cites a passage in which Comey refers to information that could have compromised the then Attorney-General, Loretta Lynch; but he does not say what it was. It was almost certainly an email in which Lynch is said to have made improper promises to the Clinton campaign about the investigation; in fact, there are doubts about the email’s veracity, and maybe Comey should not have mentioned it. I also wondered if Comey should have written about the Clinton emails that his team were not able to see (from early in her time as Secretary of State); in so doing he cast fresh doubt on the affair while claiming that he considered it closed. That seems a little disingenuous.

And sometimes Comey is just too sure of his ground. Late in the book Comey comments that: “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. . . . Those leaders who never think they are wrong, ... are a danger to the organizations and people they lead.” This doesn’t impress Lozada. “Trump,” he says, “is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.” In short, if this book is about self-exculpation, it’s not a total success.

Happier times: Comey's appointment is announced (FBI/Wikimedia Commons)
But there’s a possible second motive for writing this, which is to set out his stall regarding his next job. Comey is only 57, and wouldn’t be thinking of retirement. He is currently teaching, but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t like to jump back in to the fray. He may see himself as a candidate for Attorney-General. He may even dream of being Vice-President. Although not currently registered, he’s historically a Republican. If the Trump presidency ends very badly, as many Americans seem to expect, any Republican candidate in 2020 will need to distance themselves from the disaster – difficult, as many swung round behind Trump when he won the nomination. One way might be to have as their running mate one of Trump’s fiercest critics and worst enemies – and a man who has stated clearly, in this book, that he believes in the rule of law. Still, so far Comey has given no sign he wants high office again. And there is a third explanation; that he has written this book because he is sincerely worried about what Trump may do to the country’s institutions, and wishes to warn people.

 In particular, he believes Trump does not understand, or at least not accept, that certain public officials are not there to serve not him but the broader polity. This is dangerous. Comey’s main example is the way Trump tried to get a pledge of loyalty, as a Mafia boss would; the FBI Director cannot give such a pledge – his duty is to the law. Comey could also, had he wished, said more about the pressure Trump has put on his Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, because the latter has followed the law now and then instead of the President’s wishes.

This isn’t a perfect book. Comey is likely not a perfect person. Democrats won’t be convinced by his explanations of 2016. And while Comey does admit to doubts about his past decisions and conduct (Lozada was too harsh), it’s true he can seem sanctimonious now and then.  Even so, Comey seems sincere. “Politics come and go,” he writes. “Supreme Court justices come and go. But the core of our nation is our commitment to a set of shared values restraint and integrity and balance and truth. If that slides away from us, only a fool would be consoled by a tax cut or a different immigration policy.” 

Exculpation? Extended resume? Maybe, in part; but I’m going with the third explanation . This book is a hatchet job on Trump, to be sure, but it’s not simply personal. Comey, a senior public servant, wrote this book as a statement of values that he holds dear, and a warning that they are under threat. For many, that will be reason to read it.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Brexit: Reading the runes

Evans and Menon’s Brexit and British Politics is not the first book about Brexit, but it’s a shrewd and convincing analysis. This referendum wasn’t just about Europe

Anyone who, in the wake of the Brexit vote, still thinks that it is politics as usual should read Evans and Menon’s Brexit and British Politics. This slim volume explains clearly why the June 2016 referendum wasn’t wholly about the EU. It also demonstrates that the mendacity or otherwise of the campaign may be moot, because the result was probably preordained. It’s a convincing thesis in many ways, but there are one or two odd omissions.

Geoffrey Evans is Professor of the Sociology of Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford. He has published widely on inequality and politics. Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College, London. He has written a great deal on the European Union, including but not limited to Britain’s role in it. Together they are, I suppose, paid-up members of the great and the good, and the sort of experts that Michael Gove thinks we have all had enough of. That hasn’t stopped them from writing a challenging analysis on the roots of the Brexit vote.

The authors point out that in the 1990s and 2000s, Europe wasn’t really the pressing issue for the public that it was for Tory MPs. “The percentage of Britons citing Europe among ‘the major issues facing Britain today’ rose to double figures in the 1990s ...but the EU never became a decisive political issue,” they say, pointing out that by 2001 it had sunk back so that just 14% named it as an issue that might determine their vote.

What was happening at the same time, however, was an evolution in politics that concentrated all debate in the centre. Evans and Menon see this as a phenomenon of the Blair era and they are surely right to ascribe a large part of it to the New Labour project; as Labour chased Basildon Man, a broader polity disappeared. One might call this centrification (my phrase, not theirs). They refer to it as an elite consensus. Within it, acceptance of globalization was not open to question. Importantly, neither was a certain liberal set of values on matters such as gay marriage and capital punishment. One of the nice insights of this book is that it sees this “values factor” as equally important in fostering a sense among those not part of this consensus that they were excluded from influence, and that politics did not serve them. The authors also note a growing homogenization in MPs’ backgrounds; professional politicians replaced the trade-union representatives of the past, for example. So when the 2016 referendum offered people a rare chance to register a protest against the elite consensus, they took it.

Evans and Menon may ascribe a little too much of this “centrification” to Blair’s era; there was concern in the early 1960s about so-called Butskellism, the easy consensus around certain centrist preoccupations or views. (Rab Butler was a prominent Tory politician of the late 1950s; Gaitskell the moderate Labour leader of the same era. Both were robbed of the premiership – Butler by Harold Macmillan, and Gaitskell by death.) Even in the 1970s, a lively time in politics, there was a perception that ideology no longer mattered. I can remember William Davis, editor of Punch, writing in 1973 that it was now, “Forget the politics: Are we better managers than the other lot?” So this ossification around an elite consensus in the 1990s was not really new. But it is true that interest in politics fell away rapidly in the time of New Labour, as Evans and Menon themselves demonstrate. “In the 1970s and 1980s, close to 80% would go to the polls,” they say. “Since the turn of the century, ...the average has been around 63%.” But for the Referendum it was 72.2%.

From all this, one could conclude that people voted leave purely because they had a chance, for once, to give the establishment a good kicking, and were not that interested in the EU at all. In fact, Evans and Menon don’t go quite that far. They make it clear that many voters did have reservations about the EU and that most British people had never really identified with Europe (apparently they scored 28th out of 28 for “feeling European”). The Single European Act of 1987, creating the single market, probably took integration as far as most British people really wanted to go. Neither do they ignore the role of immigration in the debate. The authors are also careful about the common analysis that Leave voters were the poor and those left behind by globalization and European integration. There is truth in this, they say, but it is not the whole truth; there were actually more middle-class Leave voters than there were working-class (to be sure, this does turn a bit on definitions). Brexit was not entirely a revolt by the dispossessed. Neither do Evans and Menon ascribe the breakdown of confidence in politics solely to “centrification”; they also cite (for example) the ghastly expenses scandal of 2009, when MPs were caught fiddling their expenses on a massive scale.

Even so, the authors make a compelling case that Brexit was not simply a vote on Europe. It was to a large extent a rebellion against a centrist consensus – and against a perceived elite with which that consensus was identified. The referendum campaign itself, as they demonstrate, made very little difference at all.

However, there is an elephant in the room that Evans and Menon ignore, although it has been trumpeting loudly and crapping on the floor for many decades. This is the British electoral system, which they mention only two or three times, and very briefly. They are clearly aware of it as a factor, but do not seem to attach much weight to it. But it is the biggest single factor in the exclusion of most people from the political process.

This is partly just because it delivers results that do not reflect popular voting intentions, and also excludes huge areas of the political spectrum from power. This is evident from the 2015 general election results. The Tories were able to secure an absolute majority in the Commons although they received the support of only 37% of the voters , and only 24% of those registered to vote. Again, the culprit is the “winner-takes-all” electoral system. According to the UK’s Electoral Reform Society: “Labour saw their vote share increase while their number of seats collapsed. The Conservatives won an overall majority on a minority of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly all their seats – despite winning 8% of the vote. The SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote share, but 95% of Scottish seats.” UKIP won more than one in eight of the votes cast but just one seat. It could be added that many will have abstained because they knew their votes wouldn’t count where they lived. No wonder people feel that politics does not serve them.

However, simple inequities in the result aren’t the whole story; even worse, the system makes a relatively small number of voters pivotal and sends the political discourse in their directon, excluding everyone else. If you’re not a floating voter in a marginal, no-one cares for your opinions. This is what happened in the 1990s when the two main parties chased Basildon Man. They forgot about everyone else. On June 23 2016 the political establishment paid the price for refusing to change an iniquitous electoral system that kept them in power.

There is a further point that Evans and Menon don’t discuss, although they will be aware of it. This is the perceived denigration of national identity by a pro-European elite – an especially sore point amongst the English. This is related to the “values” issue that the authors do cover so well. However, it is distinct from that and especially toxic, as the referendum and its aftermath have been accompanied by some nasty displays of noisy nationalism. The way some in politics have played on this has been very worrying – for example, the silly business about getting blue passports back (the old ones were black not blue, and in any case the colour change wasn’t insisted upon by the EU). And yet one understands how some English people feel. The morning after the referendum, a picture was widely posted by Remain voters; it showed delicious European foods on one side and a solitary can of beans on the other. The picture was well-shot, and in a way witty, but one wonders if it was wise. No-one likes to see their culture insulted. Remain voters may be right, but they often struggle to understand the other side.

Notwithstanding these caveats, Evans and Menon’s analysis is shrewd and interesting. If they miss one or two insights, they have plenty more to offer – and in any case, it is early days; one suspects they will have more to say when the time is right. In the meantime, Brexit and British Politics is thought-provoking, and a good read.

Evans and Menon finish by warning that the Brexit vote has left British politics in disarray, with a rudderless political establishment trying to work out where it now stands, and a deep divide between the governors and the governed. In a telling quote, they describe how one of them warned in a pre-vote debate that Brexit would cause a reduction in GDP – only to be told by an audience member, “That’s your bloody GDP, not mine.” Late in the book, the authors quote journalist Chris Deerin, writing in The Herald Scotland in summer 2017: “The collapse of trust in our politicians, our politics, our institutions and our post-war settlement is real and it is profound. It pervades every layer of British society ...The titled, the humble and the dogs in the street alike know that our democracy has gone wonky.”

So what do we do now?

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Make the reader do the work

Three books that work the reader 
hard, and are the better for it

Show, don’t tell. It’s the classic advice to writers. My character was woken by a recurring nightmare of the night she fell asleep at the wheel and drove her car into an oak tree by the side of the road, and was cut out and taken to hospital where she spent 18 hours in theatre as surgeons attempted to reconstruct her legs. But I shan’t write that. I’ll make her wake in sweat-soaked sheets, haunted by a vague memory of drowsiness and then an impact and the shatter of glass and the crunch of metal; and then I’ll have her lift herself upright from the bed, the pins her thighs hurting her as she leans to take hold of her stick. The reader can fill in the gaps, and in so doing they will commit themselves to the story and engage with their own imagination.

But I could, if I wished, take it further. Let us say that the reader learns nothing but that our woman’s sleep is disturbed, and even that only by implication. She may, coincidentally, express a little fear when a passenger, and we learn, in an unconnected vignette, that she cannot walk far. These facts are scattered across the surface of the story so that only the attentive reader will find and connect them. If they fail to do so, they will know nothing of the accident; the book will not move them, and they will not know why. If they pick up the clues, however, the story will come to life for them through the agency of their own mind’s eye. This will be more vivid than a writer’s words.

The three books I review here are by exponents of this art, but each in their own way. In Samuel Astbury’s dystopian Forgetting, one knows what is happening but does not know why. Yet now and then there will be a clue glinting in the grass. The short stories in Rebecca Gransden’s Rusticles, by contrast, are not set in dystopia; they are rooted in a world almost crushing in its familiarity, and yet the reader is always eerily aware of something that they have not been told. Finally there is Leo X. Robertson’s extraordinary Findesferas, now republished as Out Black Spot, in which a fantastical story is told in so deadpan a way that we accept the lack of an explanation until the end, when we look back at where we have been.

It helps that all three books are written well. They may be hard to understand, but not to read – indeed, they are a pleasure, so that it is a shock when we realise just how much the writers have messed with our heads.

First, Samuel Astbury.


A young woman is “born” in a Manchester car park. She has no idea who she is. But she has credit cards and ID in her pockets and knows that her name is Elizabeth.

She establishes herself in a flat, gets a job – but is haunted by memories that link her identity to that of a boy in a town outside the city. She goes in search of him. It is a quest that will take her to a strangely deserted Cheshire dormitory town, where she sees something deeply disturbing; then to Hong Kong; and thence to the megalopolis of Shenzen, where she must confront a strange horror that has followed her from England. What is that horror? What does it mean? Is it a part of her, or of the boy she seeks?Don’t expect easy answers – this is Samuel Astbury so you’re going to have to find your own. But it’ll be worth the read.

Forgetting is Astbury's third book. He’s a master of dystopian mystery. His second book, War Blanket, was an absorbing thriller set in a near future that was both familiar and yet radically changed by climate change (making it part of what’s apparently a growing genre called Cli-Fi). However, Forgetting contains several references to Astbury’s first book, Cloud Storage, the story of a British backpacker’s frenetic journey through an Asia of drugs, nightclubs, neon and alienation, ending with a tech-related, ice-white iNightmare from which the main character struggles to escape. It was obviously written, and edited, in a hurry. But it was so vibrant and well-imagined that it was one of my reads of 2014. Forgetting is clearly intended to be related in some way, but Astbury never says how. Probably there is another book ahead in which he will explain – to the extent that he ever does.

It doesn’t matter. Forgetting can stand alone. Elizabeth’s “birth” in Manchester, her journey to Hong Kong and her long walk into China, are wonderfully well described; Astbury’s a very visual writer and every page is a pleasure. As Elizabeth walks through Manchester in the night: “budget brand cigarette ends and splashes of pearlescent oil. Hoodied wraiths with mottled, oily skin huddled together in disused off-licence doorways. Decaying terraced houses and late-eighties smoked glass office blocks.” In Hong Kong: “ and concrete monoliths forming a supercondensed, vertical city. Live octopus and dangling red meats neighboured a fleet of glistening 65in OLED television sets. Hard-smoking grandmothers fired globules of phlegm at the pristine pavement outside a flagship branch of Versace. ...I gorged on every image.” I did, too.

Shenzhen: Dystopia? (Alison Cassidy)
Moreover, while Astbury never tells us exactly what’s going on, he scatters enough clues for the reader to build their own theories. Thus Elizabeth wonders whether she is dreaming of the boy, or whether she is stuck in his dream. Now and again the nature of reality itself is called into question. As Elizabeth walks through the countryside beyond Hong Kong: “The roar of insects near-deafening. Cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. As I listened more closely, I noticed that the cacophony was in fact a single looping sample. Some obscure, low-bandwidth proprietary format, I thought to myself. It was more than adequate though. It was fit for purpose. It sustained my disbelief.” This is a theme with Astbury, in Cloud Storage and to some extent War Blanket as well; what is technology? Does it subvert reality and identity?

I really liked this, as I did Astbury’s previous two books. I don’t know where he’s going with the Cloud Storage theme. I’m not sure I care. I’m enjoying the ride.

From Shenzhen we go to the prototypical English suburbs. Rebecca Gransden’s collection of short stories, Rusticles, sucks us into her imaginary town – Hilligoss, the most normal of places – and then confronts us with the unknown, the sinister and the supernatural against a background so familiar that these stories have a weirdness all their own. They are also written in simple, elegant prose. In fact these stories are compelling – for me; but they are subtle, and some may find that Gransden has buried her meanings a little deep.

The most accessible of these stories is the second, Dried Peas on a Wall, in which young girls dare each other to ring the doorbell of the house of a reclusive lady who is rarely seen. Noting happens when they do. It is only from the girls’ conversation that we realise one of them has seen something elsewhere in the town that really is dreadful. It left me a little in shock. Other stories are indirect. In the one that follows, The Serpentine, a man makes his annual trip to see the local smackheads and ask if they know what has happened to his son. His actions when he returns home make us wonder if he does not, in fact, know all too well. But we are not told. Another story involves the ghostly presence of a child and there is a grim hint of how his life may have been ended, but again we are not told; we must use our imagination.

This subtlety endows Gransden’s stories with real impact, if one reads them with care. If one does not, they will convey little. I read this collection twice and it was only on the second reading that I realised a thread connected the last three stories; I am still not sure what that thread was for, but it is for me to invest it with meaning, and it will have more as a result.

But this is probably what Gransden intended. She has done this before. In her 2015 debut novel, anenogram. (sic), a mysterious young girl is picked up by an adult man, and they travel together through the English landscape; you know at once that this may not end well. But it is not clear who the girl is and where she came from. After a while, however, you realise that this might not be the point. Moreover in anemogram., as in Rusticles, a big part of the book’s power lies not in the story but in the telling of it, for both are beautifully-written with a very detailed, evocative sense of place.

I greatly like Gransden’s work and would like to see more of it, but I think we’ll be waiting a while. She clearly crafts her work with care, and one suspects it doesn’t bother her if a short story takes her a year. It will be worth the wait. In the meantime, these stories are challenging – but those who are prepared to read them with attention will not regret it, and will likely remember what they have read for a very long time.


The third and last book takes us back to sci-fi, but in a way quite unlike anything that I’ve ever read before. It also takes us to South America.

I’ve never been to Paraguay, but I’ve seen it. Some years ago I attended a conference in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. In between sessions, a number of colleagues crossed the bridge over the Paraná River to the Paraguayan side to buy cut-price peripherals. One morning we drove past the bridge and I looked across to the opposite bank, which was dull-green and misty – it was a grey, humid morning. In a flippant mood, I asked someone, “What goes on in Paraguay?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I suppose I’m wondering, why is Paraguay?”
He thought for a moment.
“Well, you get cheap USB sticks there,” he said.

Writer Leo X. Robertson does know something about Paraguay and in Out Black Spot (originally published as Findesferas), he weaves history, science fiction and Guaraní mythology together to create an original novel that is highly readable, but also – despite being quite short – has an almost epic quality.

At the beginning, we’re in a post-apocalyptic world. Someone has bred bacteria that can clean oil spills, but it’s got out of control and cleaned up most of the world’s oil. Now countries are fighting over what little is left, using pre-Oil Age technology such as steamboats and muskets of brass. Paraguay, led by a cruel and vainglorious Marshal, is embroiled in a war against Brazil. Brothers Juan and Matías are fighting; their mother and Matías’s wife are struggling to survive in an imperilled and hungry Asunción.

Then the two women are visited by the Pombero, a boy-like, stunted creature from Guaraní mythology. The monsters of the Guaraní creation myth – Robertson lists and describes them – are, like the humans, starving, and have spotted Juan and Matías in the jungle. Shall they eat them? Or will the women agree to provide another human as sacrifice instead? Meanwhile, alongside this story, is a parallel one – a science-fiction plot in which a spaceship has lifted Juan away from the earth.

Francisco Solano López
This all sounds a bit mad, but this book richly rewards readers who try to understand it. A quick bit of Googling established that Robertson does know his Guaraní mythology; the Pombero behaves as it should, as do the other creatures, including the awful Luison, which lives on rotting flesh. Moreover the Marshal’s campaign is, it turns out, a rerun (more or less) of Marshal Francisco Solano López’s towards the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s. In this war, Paraguay took on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and lost, with catastrophic consequences. The dead are thought to have amounted to 400,000-odd, including about half Paraguay’s population; many died through disease and starvation. Yet little is known of it outside Latin America.

Why write a novel in which mythical creatures eat rotting flesh, a 150-year-old war is refought and a spaceship takes off for an unknown destination? Everyone will draw their own conclusion; although a good read, this book isn’t easy to pin down. I thought I had the answer somewhere towards the end, and it does concern oil, its organic origins and the cycle of existence to which we are all bound. Mythical creatures consume flesh, but so does oil – a cycle by which all life (including us) is transformed below the earth from organic matter into a substance from which its energy can be re-released. Perhaps Robertson is saying that, if we choose to ride this cycle, we become caught in a loop in which oil both gives life and consumes it, and history will repeat itself until we break that cycle. But every reader is going to have to figure this out for themselves.

They will enjoy doing so. To be sure, Out Black Spot isn’t perfect – it takes concentration to read (it starts with an Epilogue, which does not help). The science-fiction elements do not always work as well as the war and the mythical creatures do. Even so, whatever Robertson’s message (if any), Out Black Spot is strikingly original; there can’t be many books that remind you of both Gabriel García Márquez and Kurt Vonnegut. I strongly recommend this. And one thing’s for sure; next time someone mentions Paraguay, I shan’t think of memory sticks. 

Three books that make you work. You won't regret it.

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Being Beastly in Fleet Street

Alexander Starritt’s novel The Beast is a savage satire on the tabloid newspaper. It’s a worthy successor to Evelyn Waugh and J.B. Priestley’s efforts. And it’s as timely as they were

About 40 years ago Punch published a cartoon strip in which a downtrodden journalist walks into his editor’s office.
Editor: Now, about that nun who was raped by the International Red Cross.
Journalist: But that was last week.
Editor: It sold six million, so we’re having her raped again. Dammit, do I have to do everything round here myself?
The cartoon was, I think, by the great J.B. Handelsman, whose work graced not only Punch but also The New Yorker. I found myself thinking of this strip while reading Alexander Starritt’s The Beast, a savage and funny satire set on the sub-editors’ desk of a British tabloid.

Starritt’s Beast is clearly the Daily Mail. Apart from anything else, its HQ definitely sounds like that of the Mail, in the old Biba building in Kensington; I visited it a couple of times when, as I young man, I had an abortive try-out as a feature writer. In fact, I bet its lawyers have given the book the once-over. If they have, they’ve likely told management to draw as little attention to the book as possible. I would, if I were them.

The story in The Beast is simple enough. Jeremy Underwood is a sub-editor; subs are the link between the reporter and the finished paper, taking the stories, hacking them into shape, headlining them and getting them ready for the page. Returning from holiday, Underwood walks past two women in burqas apparently hanging around near the building. Feeling he should tell someone, in case it’s a story, he tells the reporters. They do see a story and quickly “confirm” that there is a credible threat to the Beast. In fact, the two young women in burqas were looking for a branch of Wholefoods. But nothing can now stop the mayhem that starts to unfold, as the Beast embarks upon a string of stories about an alleged Muslim plot to destroy it. This starts a chain of events that has violent results in the country. The book ends with a slightly bathetic tragedy that you don’t see coming, but is entirely logical. In between, tabloid journalists scream and growl at each other and seethe with casual racism while people get killed in the world outside.

Scratch the surface of this book and you will find much more than satire. You’ll find a vivid picture of how a story comes together once it hits the sub’s desk, and it all has a ring of truth. Boring facts relayed by some reporter drudge in a county court can be quickly reassembled to support whatever theory the paper is pushing that week, whether it be on health foods or Muslim terrorists. It’s all done under a tyrannical, unstable editor who sees himself as the embodiment of British values. (In a neat touch, Starritt calls him Brython, which is a Welsh-derived word sometimes used to refer to pre-Roman Britons.)

The Beast is also a very shrewd depiction of who tabloid journalists are, and how their sub-culture has survived, insulated against a changing world. The older ones remember the world of Fleet Street as it was. It’s a world that I myself saw briefly, just before it ended; the hot-metal typesetters, the clatter of machinery, the great rolls of newsprint being winched from lorries in the narrow streets that ran from Fleet Street down to the Embankment. The subs also remember the legends who worked in the Street of Shame; the long liquid lunches, the tradition of boozy contempt for morality. And they proudly pass this tradition on to the young recruits who join them.

Yet it’s not a world that anyone should be proud of preserving. Lord Northcliffe, who founded the Mail, is alleged to have said “Give them something to hate every day”; in fact this is apocryphal, but that is certainly how the tabloids have been sold. The Mail whipped up alarm about Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and perpetrated the awful Zinoviev Letter hoax in the 1920s in order to discredit the Labour Party. As for the Daily Express, one remembers what Max Hastings wrote about a famous prewar journalist, H. V. Morton – that he had “the qualities of an outstanding Beaverbrook journalist of his period: masterly understanding of public taste, deployed in a moral void.” Starritt’s characters clearly do function in a complete moral void, and bad things happen as a result.

But the Beast, of course, predates Starritt. It first appeared in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop, in which it is widely assumed to have been not the Mail but the Express. Robert McCrum once wrote that Scoop was “the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal.” I can’t completely agree.  I think Starritt gets closer to the mark, and there’s a third book that I think is even better than either – more of that in a minute.  But Scoop certainly has its points.

It begins with a fashionable but bored writer, John Boot, persuading an aristocratic patroness, Lady Stitch, to use her influence and get him sent abroad on a newspaper job. Milady obliges by badgering press magnate Lord Copper, who issues the appropriate instructions to his staff. Unfortunately they misidentify Boot as their own William Boot, their countryside correspondent, who comes from an eccentric family of impoverished gentlefolk in the West Country. This Boot is duly dispatched to cover an incipient crisis in an African country called Ishmaelia. This is clearly Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where Waugh had just covered the brutal Italian invasion of 1935-36. Boot is widely supposed to be based on one of Waugh’s fellow correspondents, Bill Deedes, then a very young correspondent for the Morning Post.

Some of Scoop is funny, and acute. Boot has a long and uncomfortable trip down the Red Sea on a second-class ship (the era of sea travel was not always glamorous). In the capital, he joins a foreign press corps whose coverage of the war quickly declines into farce. When one correspondent is rumoured to have got a lead, excitement reaches fever pitch. Eventually, most of the press disappear into the country on a wild goose chase while Boot is smoothly swindled by Kätchen, the attractive mistress of the Fascist agent. It all ends with Boot being lionised for a dispatch that he did not write. Meanwhile in London no-one notices that the wrong Boot has been sent; all are too scared of the tyrannical press baron, Lord Copper, so do not question why he has sent a countryside correspondent to cover a war.

There are some lovely moments in Scoop. Boot’s non-romance with Kätchen is well done (there is a charming scene when they sit in a collapsible canoe together). Boot’s family seat in Somerset is lovingly described at night, white in the moonlight. The old Fleet Street and the Express building come nicely to life. Also, as critic Thomas Jones once pointed out, Scoop is a keen satire on patronage networks – the writer Boot can get an assignment because he knows a powerful society hostess; the paper gets its tips from the police; in Ishmaelia, William Boot is at an advantage over other correspondents because he has been to school with a senior staff member at the Embassy. As Jones reminds us, the media still works that way.

In some ways, however, Scoop has not aged so well. It lays on the satire heavily; The Beast also does that, but is near enough reality to get away with it. Scoop may have been too, when first written, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. Lady Stitch is too eccentric, Boot is too naive, and Lord Copper never quite takes shape. Boot’s rural relatives seem to have escaped from Cold Comfort Farm.  

Bill Deedes, the supposed model for William Boot, was not impressed. Deedes went on to long careers in both politics (as a Minister under both Churchill and Macmillan) and journalism (he was a successful editor of the Telegraph, a role he filled as late as 1986). A few years before his death in 2007, he refuted his supposed role as Boot in a long piece for the Telegraph in which he claimed that few good novelists really caricature anyone; their characters, he argued, are composites. He also gave Waugh a kicking:

To some readers, Scoop confirms the impression that Waugh was a successful novelist but a failed newspaper reporter. Behind the banter, they reason, we find a man poking fun at a profession that humiliated him. He takes his revenge on those who outclassed him in the newspaper business by lampooning them and with a storyline that has them all outwitted by a country hick. It is not an unreasonable interpretation...

It isn’t. Waugh had, on graduation, had a trial in Fleet Street, and had failed. It was not the first time he had taken revenge on those who had found him wanting. He had not been a huge academic success at Oxford either and on that institution, too, he had sought revenge, through a series of attacks on the Dean and later Principal of Hertford College, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Waugh’s attacks on Cruttwell probably hastened the latter’s mental illness and death. Waugh may have forgotten this in later life, but Oxford didn’t. My father, who was an undergraduate at Hertford during Cruttwell’s final illness and was later a Fellow, had never read a book by Waugh and would not discuss him.

That, then, was what drove Scoop – not genuine anger at the newspaper world and its venality or the patronage networks it depicts. They don’t anger Waugh; they afford him a certain malicious amusement at a world that had rejected him. Starritt, by contrast, does seem angry.

So was J.B. Priestley.

Priestley’s Wonder Hero was published in 1933. It concerns Charlie Habble, a modest young night worker in a chemical works whose actions one night appear to have prevented a fire and an explosion that might have blown his drab Midlands town to smithereens. In fact, they were the actions of another man whose role Habble cannot, for honourable reasons, reveal. Meanwhile a feature writer for the Daily Tribune happens to be in the town, having come to chase an important story. Having failed to secure it, he is anxious not to return to London empty-handed, and fastens onto Habble’s instead. The hapless Habble is hailed as a hero. He is dragged to London, suited and booted, recorded on newsreel, given a substantial cash award by the paper and lionised in its pages. Moreover the Tribune gives him a taste of the high life, housing him in a luxury hotel, and insisting that he make an appearance at the theatre and at a fashionable nightclub in the company of another newspaper protégé, a beauty queen also from the Midlands, Ida Chatwick. They clearly wish to hint at a romance between their two creations.

Habble is a straightforward provincial working man but is neither stupid nor dishonest, and these events trouble him. His qualms increase when the proprietor of the Tribune, the tyrannical Sir Gregory Hatchland, decides that Habble is the sort of fine upstanding young man he needs to parade before his pet political party, the vaguely fascist League of Imperial Yeomen. As the meeting progresses, Charlie, waiting backstage, feels a distinct lack of enthusiasm. As he waits, he hears from his uncle; his aunt, who lives in a Northern industrial city called Slakeby, is very ill. He abandons the Tribune and the League without making his appearance, and goes north to see if he can help.

It’s a chance for Priestley to confront us with a terrible contrast. One moment Habble’s being wheeled from luxury hotel to nightclub to theatre, shown off like a prize pig to London’s glitterati. The next he is right in the very worst of the Great Depression – or as it was also called at one time, the slump. He uses the award from the Tribune to get his aunt the help she needs. When he returns to London, the paper has lost interest in him. Ida Chatwick, too, has been tossed aside. They are yesterday’s fish-and-chip paper and they know it.

Wonder Hero is an angry book. The slump, the unemployment, the arbitrary behaviour of Hatchland and the press, all are there. When Habble decides he must go to Slakeby, he takes leave of the cynical but friendly young journalist who has escorted him for the Tribune. The journalist warns him that he won’t be a story any more if he goes. “Perhaps they’ll send me up to see you at wherever it is – perhaps. Not much chance, though; we don’t like putting the spotlight on that part of the country. Your uncle could hardly have lived in a worse place. He’s taking you right out of the news.”

A few hours later Habble stands on the bridge across Slakeby’s river:

Where were the shipyards and ships he remembered all along the banks? The sheds were there and a crane or two, and that was all. Everything else – finished, gone.  ...Some of the towns in the Midlands had been knocked sideways by the depression, but this place had been knocked flat.

But that is not news.

There is no doubt that this did anger Priestley. The following year, 1934, he would publish his English Journey, in which he described his progress through a country in which the ravages of the Great Depression were all too evident. In a memorable scene, he describes a Northern reunion with members of his former regiment, who he has not seen since he was badly wounded in 1916. He is affronted that some cannot afford the clothes to attend the event. (He did not forget this incident, and mentioned it again in his much later book Margin Released.) It would be easy to conclude that Wonder Hero was a product of the same journey. In fact it wasn’t; it was published in 1933 and Priestley set off on his travels later that year. But it’s clear that his two books were driven by the same anger.

It is this anger that makes Wonder Hero memorable and I believe that is also true of The Beast. It is also why both books are superior to Scoop. Waugh may have been angry with the Fleet Street that rejected him, or with his friends, or with Cruttwell, but he seems to have felt little real anger at the abuses he was supposed to be satirising. Scoop is a good yarn, but as satire it is vapid.

There is no doubt that all this matters. It did in the 1930s, when Priestley’s fictional Tribune showed no interest in the state of the country, and when the real Mail was busy printing scare stories about Jewish refugees pouring into Britain; one wonders how many failed to obtain asylum as a result, and in due course died. The press still distorts the agenda today. In a much-admired feature in the The New Yorker in 2012, Lauren Collins described how in 2000 Tony Blair ordered his advisors to focus on several issues that, as it happened, the Mail had highlighted that morning. Collins also quotes a story that illustrates why the treatment of Muslims in The Beast  is so important. She describes a story the Mail ran of a “hardworking café owner” who had to get rid of an extractor fan because the smell of bacon was offending Muslims. But if one read carefully to the bottom of the story, one found that complaint had been made by a neighbour who said “Muslim friends” had not liked the smells when they visited. No Muslim had complained. It also turned out that the café owner’s husband was Muslim. Still, one should never let the facts take the edge off a good headline, and in Starritt’s book the subs make sure it doesn’t. And this does have consequences. As the distinguished journalist Ian Jack has said in a warm review of The Beast: “The real achievement of the popular press is to have played a part in making Britain, particularly England, the strange, febrile country we now know.”

But does all this matter as much as it did? The newspaper world Starritt describes is a dying one. Print newspapers have nothing like the circulation they did in the 1930s, or even 20 years ago. Starritt’s characters know that; they look over their shoulder at the online editions that they know will soon replace them. But what Starritt nowhere mentions is fake news; the bizarre websites that spread rumours – for example that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, or that the liberal establishment was running a child-abuse ring in restaurants. The latter rumour, 2016’s Pizzagate “scandal”, which led to a shooting, was apparently spread (though not invented) by a site called – the stories for which, according to a story in The Times, are allegedly made up by the site’s owner’s mum. I’ve written myself about this assault on truth, which bloody petrifies me (On truth and lies, June 2017).

Neither is this a solely Anglophone problem. In October 2017 the New York Times reported that in Italy, the Ministry of Education had been sufficiently alarmed to launch a pilot project in 8,000 high schools, teaching pupils how to tell fake news from real. It quotes Laura Boldrini, President of Italy’s lower house, as saying that fake news “drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it.” Compared to the damage these “fake news” sites may do, tabloids are mild stuff. British newspapers are vicious and mendacious. But they always were, and we may soon miss them as we are hit with something much worse. Does this mean that Starritt’s, Waugh’s and Priestley’s books are no longer relevant?

I don’t think it does. The message that we can draw from these books is that every news outlet has its agenda, and that whenever we see anything inflammatory, we should ask the lawyer’s question: Cui bono? Who benefits? What was the story meant to make you believe, and to what end? Why is that news outlet in business anyway – what is its business model, and why is it there? The rise of fake news sites hasn’t made books like Starritt’s,or Priestley’s, irrelevant. On the contrary, they have invested them with more meaning than ever before.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

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